Early voters enter the registrar's office in Botetourt County. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

The Lee-Hi precinct in Roanoke covers a predominantly white, middle-class neighborhood in a comfortable, quiet part of the city. Some might even call the community affluent. However you chose to describe it, Lee-Hi seems an unlikely spot for a political upheaval, and yet one might be happening there. We just don’t know how much of one, or whether it’s come and gone.

Historically, Lee-Hi has been one of the few Republican precincts in a city that now votes steadfastly Democratic, often overwhelmingly so. The State Board of Elections makes precinct results available (back to 1996); those records show the high point for Republicans came in 2004 when 59.8% of the voters in Lee-Hi cast ballots for George W. Bush, even as Democrat John Kerry was carrying the city overall with 56.5%. Barack Obama had no particular charm in Lee-Hi. John McCain took 57.8% and Mitt Romney took 56.7% in Lee-Hi.

But then something happened. In 2016, the once rock-solid Republican vote in Lee-Hi collapsed. Only 39.5% in Lee-Hi voted for Donald Trump. Instead, 52.2% in Lee-Hi voted for Hillary Clinton, the first time the precinct had voted for a Democrat for president in all of the State Board of Elections records. The next year, in the 2017 governor’s race, the precinct went Democratic again – by an even wider margin, with 60.9% voting for Ralph Northam.

What happened in Lee-Hi? Well, we know generally that Donald Trump helped set off, or at least accelerate, a political realignment in the country that often broke along the fault lines of education and income. He ran better than previous Republicans among working-class whites (and not always whites). Meanwhile, Newton’s Third Law of Motion – for every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction – applied to politics, with many well-educated, upper-income voters recoiling from Trump. In that sense, what happened in Lee-Hi wasn’t unusual at all, it was merely emblematic of national trends. (For those who follow Roanoke politics, yes, the city did redraw precincts between the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections to make precincts more even in size, but Lee-Hi didn’t change very much, so those changes don’t account for the sudden shift.)

Now, though, comes the bigger question: Was that a permanent shift or a temporary one? The 2021 governor’s race was the perfect opportunity to answer this question. Trump was out of office and not on the ballot. And yet we still don’t know. Why not? It’s because so many voters now vote early and those votes aren’t counted as part of the voter’s regular precinct. They’re counted as part of a “central absentee precinct.”

Early voting seems a good thing: The concept of having to vote on a single day seems antiquated in our modern society (we don’t have to pay our taxes on a single day, just by a single day), but that’s my personal view. What matters more is what the free market says and, given the volume of early voting, it seems that voters have clearly expressed a market preference. (You’d think the Republicans who want to restrict early voting would have more respect for the free market.)

Here’s the downside of early voting, though: the way Virginia counts those votes. By putting all the early votes into a single central absentee precinct, we get a big “ballot dump” which, to some, looks suspicious. It’s not, but some still see it that way. Historically, absentee ballots are the last ones counted. Of course, historically there weren’t all that many of them, either. That’s why in the 2020 presidential election, those big “ballot dumps” came at the end of the night. Since the voting in 2020 was so polarized – with most Democrats voting early and most Republicans voting on the traditional Election Day – we wound up with a “red mirage” in which Trump appeared to be winning until those absentees came in. (I remember certain national commentators going berserk when it appeared Trump was winning Virginia. That’s one of many reasons why you should turn off every cable news network. Those commentators simply had no clue what was happening on the ground while those who truly understood Virginia politics knew exactly what was going on.)

In 2021, some Virginia localities tried to avoid that late-night “ballot dump” by counting the absentees first. Of course, that led to an early-evening “ballot dump.” Same problem, just in reverse. Instead of a “red mirage” we could easily have a “blue mirage” as long as our voting preferences remain so polarized. (Maybe that’s changing. Glenn Youngkin and other Republicans pushed early voting last year so we didn’t wind up with as much of a “blue mirage” as we thought we might.)

In any case, these “ballot dumps” aren’t healthy for democracy. We’re still paying the price of Trump undermining confidence in our elections. Much like the proverbial turtle on the fence post, the mobs that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, didn’t get there by themselves. All those who have enabled the conspiracy theorists will pay a heavy price when history gets around to judging this era. For now, Democrats rightly regard a lot of the Republican talk about “election integrity” as simply crazy talk. Nonetheless, facts are facts and it’s a fact that a lot of people have lost faith in the process. Whether they lost faith for legitimate reasons or not is largely irrelevant. They have, and if we’re going to continue to have a civil society (as opposed to, say, a very uncivil civil war), that faith needs to be restored.

Here’s one simple way: Do away with these “ballot dumps.” Figure out a way to count those early votes as part of the regular precincts so votes can be tallied and reported in the “normal” way. That would restore transparency to the process and avoid concern that somebody somewhere is stuffing the ballot box the way that Lyndon Johnson supposedly (and probably) did in the infamous 1948 Democratic U.S. Senate primary in Texas. The “Box 13” scandal, some called it.

State Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County

Conveniently, state Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, has a bill that would do just that. The Democratic-controlled Senate Privileges and Elections Committee passed the bill last week, although it now goes to the Senate Finance Committee, which might be more skeptical because there are some costs associated with this. Here’s my take: Whatever those costs might be are worth it.

Suetterlein’s bill won’t mean that the candidate who leads early in the evening will still be leading at the end. Such things have always depended on which votes get counted first. I remember the 2006 Senate election in Virginia – Republican George Allen led through most of the night, Democrat James Webb eked out a victory at the end when votes from big precincts in Northern Virginia finally got tallied. At least then, though, we all understood which precincts were still out and how they historically leaned, which is why as the night wore on Republicans grew more worried and Democrats grew more excited. It was akin to a come-from-behind sports win, except Webb was never behind at all – his votes were there all along, but his best localities simply got counted last. If they’d been counted in a different order, Webb would have led all evening, with Allen closing fast (just not fast enough).

What we have now is a situation akin to knowing the final score of a game without being able to read the box score. Let’s say the Los Angeles Lakers lost last night and all we know is the score. We still don’t know how that happened. Did LeBron James have an off night? Or did he score a record number of points but his teammates didn’t come through? Or did someone on the other side have a stellar night? If we can’t read the box score, we don’t know.

And that brings us to another reason that Suetterlein’s bill should pass – one that both parties should be able to agree on. Without knowing how localities voted at the precinct level, we can’t truly understand how elections turned out the way they did. Did this party win because they really turned out their vote? Or because the other party’s turnout was depressed? Or did a particular party win because there were significant realignments in how certain voters voted?

That brings us to this pertinent example: Did Lee-Hi continue to vote Democratic in the 2021 governor’s race – which would suggest this voter realignment is a permanent thing? Or did Lee-Hi revert to its pre-Trump Republican form, which would suggest that the voting trends of the Trump years were an aberration? We simply don’t know, but you can bet that both parties would sure like to know.

We can make some guesses based on how localities voted. Suburban Virginia Beach, which usually goes narrowly Republican but went Democratic during the Trump years, swung back to Republicans in 2021. Closer to home, Lynchburg, which went Democratic in 2020 for the first time since 1948, returned to the Republican fold. Those locality-level observations, though, are no substitute for knowing the full results at the precinct-level – which we used to have and ought to have again.

Both parties have a stake in knowing that – they need to know where to spend their resources and where not to. Political analysts like me have a stake in knowing that – I’d call this a journalists’ relief bill although that would surely doom it by a unanimous vote! Ultimately, we all have a stake in knowing vote results at the precinct level – because if there’s a group of people out there who distrust the election results, it’s hard for us to function as a society. Democracy depends not just on free elections, but on the losers gracefully accepting those election results.

We ought to be able to have our early voting and our fully transparent precinct results, too.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.